A dove-like girl emerges from the still water before she enters the temple, as the boy, who sits on his horse majestically like a prince yet to be crowned, watches her from a distance. His eyes shimmer, and he smiles sheepishly, which is so uncharacteristic of a prince, when she walks past him. Their eyes meet for the first time. They both seem to have taken a liking to each other.
At least the boy knows that his heart beats for her. The girl, an orphan, resists, given the boy’s high-profile background, but she eventually gives in to his boyish temptations. He takes her in on the horse, and they ride together to a valley where nobody is around. It’s just him and her, Ponniyin Selvan’s Aditha Karikalan and Nandini in idyllic isolation.
‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ begins to unfold with this quiet, melancholic piece of prose about a doomed love affair of Aditha and Nandini written on an epitaph. As a continuation of the first part, this gorgeous opening sequence bathed in affection and tenderness, acts as a time machine to how Aditha Karikalan (Vikram, in a career-defining performance), the beast-like warrior of the Chola dynasty, was introduced at the very beginning.
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In Ponniyin Selvan 1, we see Aditha in his majestic form quietly emerging into the frame from a ball of mist. We see him in slow motion in the midst of a war with the Rashtrakuta King, but his mind is occupied elsewhere. The opening stretch of ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ gives us that realm of possibility. His mind is with her, Nandini (a marvellous Aishwarya Rai Bachchan).
Aditha Karikalan is a dead man looking for a graveyard. The person who would put him to rest, who would put his restless mind to rest, and who could give him the death he has been looking for in battlefields, is Nandini. Speaking of restlessness, Ravi Varman’s camera doesn’t ever rest on Vikram; it’s always revolving around Aditha, almost as if suggesting Aditha’s restless mind.
The entire Aditha-Nandini’s strand is a remarkable screenwriting example because it is the emotional core of the two parts of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’. Perhaps, this might not have been Kalki Krishnamoorthy’s vision. According to the fans of the book, Aditha’s story was one of the segments and not the only one. His story wasn’t even given that much importance, let alone being the anchor to the narrative.
But in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the protagonist is not the titular character aka Arunmozhi Varman, but Aditha and Nandini. Without them, there is no drama, and without their tortured romance, there is no soul. Isn’t it ironic? Not really for a filmmaker, often accused of being ‘romantic’, who is equally known for his tortured romances (in ‘Dil Se’, ‘Aayutha Ezhuthu’ (in Inba’s story), ‘Raavanan’ and ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’).
Through Aditha-Nandini’s love ballad (AR Rahman gives an astonishing score, which is essentially a woman humming), which acts like a window into Mani Ratnam’s head, we get a sense of how. How much Aditha’s story must have bothered the filmmaker that you actually see him feel for them. There can be no better explanation apart from that, because in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the hero of the book takes a backseat.
‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ dives straight into where the previous part ended. Rumours get louder in Thanjavur and elsewhere that Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) and his loyal-friend Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) have drowned to death in Lanka. Madhurantaka Thevar (Rahman), the rightful heir to Chola throne, wants to seize this opportunity to capture what was his birthright. Elsewhere, Aditha marches on like an elephant gone wild at the news of his brother’s supposed death.
Nandini, on the other hand, plots a devious plan to somehow bring Aditha to Kadambur, where they plan to kill him with Pandya infiltrators. Kundavai (Trisha) is left alone and has to plan her strategies right before things turn bloody. There is also the mystery of Oomai Rani that gets answered.
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There is a lot to unpack in ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’. Though the filmmaker tries to marry the visual scope of the literary text with special effects, it at times yields conflicting results especially in the war portion. But then, violence is not Mani Ratnam’s strong suit and it remains just about functional in the second part.
‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is about a world seething with jealousy, hatred, vanity and greed. At the same time, it is about primal human emotions. The second part benefits largely from strong performances by its stellar starcast, particularly Vikram and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who give the performance of their lifetime. Although this movie is largely about men, Aishwarya’s Nandini is scheming, regal and has a lot of swag. As a “mayamohini” and a “venomous snake”, the power Aishwarya’s presence has on screen…it’s just dangerous. For Aditha, and as well as for us, the viewer.
There is no ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ without Nandini aka Aishwarya. Watch out for the scene where she assertively says, “Enna varacholliyathu naan,” (“I’m the one who summoned”) when someone asks her what if Aditha doesn’t come to Kadambur. As for Vikram, just watch out for the man when he arrives in Kadambur to meet Nandini. The way Vikram looks at Aishwarya seems to suggest that he has given all of what it takes for this; the look on his face is remarkably affecting.
Heady and languorous
As one would expect, the narrative of ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ is both heady and languorous. Unlike the first part, where there was little ‘plot’ and felt more like an adventure, the second part is sprawling, has lavish details and interconnecting subplots. But unlike the first part, which had a sort of linear rhythm to the narrative, here in ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’, some of the scenes appear rushed, and some needed elaborate time for us to sink ourselves in it.
This was anyway a double-edged sword for Mani Ratnam. In order to compress the labyrinthine story into a few plot points, sometimes ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ runs the risk of looking like there is a lot more to uncover that has just been brushed under the carpet.
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But at the same time, Ratnam’s command over the medium is easily distinguishable. His authority doesn’t lie in those laboriously detailed “contextual” scenes or endless dialogue, but in softer humane touches like in Aditha-Nandini’s strand or the charming exchange between Kundavai and Vanthiyathevan (with the gentle ‘Aga Naga’ in the background). Or, when Aditha, Kundavai and Arunmozhi meet for the first time in the movie, having a private conversation that is both heart-warming and moving.
Which begs us to wonder: has there ever been a filmmaker in India who has explored the lengths of interpersonal relationships as much as Ratnam, or at least to this extent? Or should we reframe that question: will there ever be another one?
In a literary classic about kings, kinship, feuding families, and the pursuit of power, Ratnam displays a remarkable passion towards what is personal. For, in a movie that has a kaleidoscope of touching moments, what stands tall is someone dying in the arms of their lover. Sounds Shakespeare-ish? Nope, this is just typically Mani Ratnam.